Sometimes it’s not easy being a benchmark.

Toyota Motor Corp., which set the industry standard in terms of manufacturing practices, now is fighting to keep at the front of the pack in the face of growing competition from those who long have emulated the innovative lean systems of the No.1 Japanese automaker.

“Maybe other companies have out-Toyota’d Toyota,” says Gary Convis, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.

Mr. Convis, new to his post as manufacturing chief at the largest auto plant in the U.S., says that other automakers, which benchmarked the lean manufacturing system that Toyota for all practical purposes invented, have taken the system and improved upon it.

Now Toyota has to figure out a method of communicating what’s known as the “Toyota Way” down company lines as the automaker grows and spreads around the globe.

But the Toyota Way represents a manufacturing culture so complex and so entrenched, that Mr. Convis admits it is impossible to know it as deeply as its original founders.

There’s no way to teach the unique Toyota culture except through intensive one-on-one coaching on the shop floor, he says, acknowledging that “there needs to be a better way.”

For Toyota – a company where change doesn’t come easy – what that better way may be is a little murky. He says the automaker has tried to capture the admittedly nebulous Toyota Way in words for internal training manuals, but that’s just a first step.

Mr. Condit discussed Toyota’s efforts to adapt at his Wednesday speech titled “Toyota: Changes and Challenges.” And change is the biggest challenge for the evolutionary, not revolutionary, automaker.

One change, is Mr. Convis, himself. The fact that an American, not an executive from Japan, is running operations here is a new move for the automaker. Likewise, a U.K. native is running Toyota’s manufacturing operations in his homeland. Bringing in local executives is a “huge change,” Mr. Convis – formerly of NUMMI and General Motors Corp. -- says, to Toyota’s culture.

The automaker also is adapting to technology quickly, using virtual engineering practices that facilitated cutting the development time on the ’02 Camry to 26 months – a full 10 months shorter than for the last-generation.

But Mr. Convis says Toyota doesn’t plan to get radical now, in its attempt to retain its benchmark status. Rather, it will continue to employ the slow-and-steady principles of the Toyota Way – kaizen, or constant improvement, and genchi genbutso, which literally means “go and see” – in order to stay the course.

Because, while others may be able to imitate, no automaker, Mr. Convis says, understands the intricacies of the system it invented like Toyota.